There seems to be no disagreement among Muslims about the validity of following the teachings of the household of the Prophet in understanding Islam, especially according to the Sunni view which considers even all the companions of the Prophet as reliable sources of understanding Islam.1 There is no doubt, then, that the household of the Prophet are reliable and trustworthy in their understanding and presentation of Islam.
This fact becomes even clearer when we refer to the traditions from the Prophet about his household and examine sayings of Sunni scholars about the knowledge of Ali and other members of the household of the Prophet. For example, Imam Malik says: “No eyes have seen, no ears have heard, and nothing has come to the heart of any human being better than Ja‘far b. Muhammad, who is distinguished in his knowledge, his piety, his asceticism, and in his servitude to God.” This is what Ibn Taymiyah reports from Imam Malik in his book.2 In a survey about those who narrated from Imam Sadiq, Shaykh al-Mufid (d.413) in his al-Irshad asserts that those who were trustworthy among them from different schools of thought were 4000 in number.
Thus, there is no ambiguity here and this is why many Sunni scholars such as the late Shaykh Shaltut have clearly pointed out that every Muslim is allowed to act according to one of the five Islamic schools of fiqh: Ja‘fari, Hanafi, Hanbali, Maliki and Shafi‘i.
The reason is clear, because if Imam Ja‘far Sadiq, for example, did not possess more knowledge or better access to the knowledge of the Prophet than the rest, then one has to admit that he must have been at least equal to others, especially if we bear in mind whom he taught such as Abu Hanifah, the Imam of Hanafi Muslims who attended Imam Sadiq’s lectures for two years.
People who are educated or who seek the truth are expected, therefore, to examine all Islamic sources available, and thereby come to a conclusion about the ways Muslims can lead exemplary lives. Certainly one rich source is the teachings of the household of the Prophet.
Now, let us see whether it is necessary to refer to the household of the Prophet in understanding Islam. To provide an answer I will focus only on some traditions from the Prophet narrated by great Sunni narrationists and accepted by both Sunni and Shi‘a scholars. But prior to that it has to be noted that all the teachings of the household of the Prophet were always based on the Glorious Qur’an and the Sunnah of the Prophet. No one should think, for example, that Imam Sadiq was saying something according to his own opinion about Islam. Whatever they uttered was exactly what they had themselves received from the Prophet. There are many traditions in this regard. For example, in Usul al-Kafi we find that Imam Sadiq said that whatever he said was what he had received through his forefathers from the Prophet.
One of these traditions is the famous tradition of Thaqalayn. This tradition was uttered by the Prophet on different occasions, including the day of ‘Arafah in his last pilgrimage and the 18th of Dhu’l-Hijjah in Ghadir Khum. Despite minor differences in the wording the essence remains the same in all versions of the tradition. For example, in one version of the tradition the Prophet said:
Oh people! I leave among you two precious things: the Book of God and my household. As long as you hold on to them you will not go astray.
Or in another tradition the Prophet said:
I leave among you two precious things, which if you hold on to you will not go astray after me: the Book of God which is like a rope extended between the heaven and the earth, and my household. These two things will not separate from each other until they reach me near the fountain on the Day of Judgement. Take care in how you treat them after me.
This shows that the Prophet was worried about the way that Muslims, or at least some of them, would treat the Qur’an and his household. In another tradition he said:
I leave two successors: first, the Book of God which is like a rope extended between heaven and the earth, and second, my household. They will not separate from each other until they come to me near the fountain of Kawthar.
The above traditions can be found in major Sunni sources, such as: Sahih of Muslim (vol. 8, p. 25, No. 2408), Musnad of Imam Ahmad (vol. 3, p. 388, No. 10720), Sunan of Darimi (vol. 2, p. 432), and Sahih of Tirmidhi (vol. 5, p. 6432, No. 3788). They are also mentioned in books such as Usd al- Ghabah by Ibn Athir (vol. 2, p. 13), Al-Sunan al-Kubra by Bayhaqi (vol. 2, p. 198) and Kanz al-‘Ummal (vol. 1, p. 44).
Now let us reflect on the content of the hadith, i.e. the fact that the Prophet has left among Muslims two weighty things: the Qur’an and his household, and that as long as people hold on to them both, they will not go astray. This shows that these two things must always be in harmony with each other, and that they never contradict each other. Otherwise, the Prophet would not have given the instruction to follow both of them. Moreover, the people would get puzzled about what to do if the household of the Prophet were to tell them to go in one direction and the Book of God says to go in another. Although this fact is implicitly understandable from the beginning of hadith, the Prophet himself later explicitly confirmed this fact by saying, “They will not separate from each other until they come to me near the fountain of Kawthar”.
Thus, this hadith in all versions indicates that:
- From the time of the Prophet until the end of the world the Book of God and the household of the Prophet will always be together.
- No one can say that the book of God is enough, and that we do not need the household of the Prophet, or vice versa, for the Prophet clearly said: I leave two precious things that you must grasp and if you do so you will not be misled.
- The household of the Prophet would never make mistakes and they are always truthful.
- It is also interesting that according to this hadith the household of the Prophet, like the Qur’an itself, is held to be persistent until the Day of Judgement and Paradise. Thus, the household of the Prophet will never disappear, even for a short period of time.
The other hadith is the hadith of Safīnah (ship). All Muslims have narrated that the Prophet said:
Be aware that surely the example of my household among you is like the example of the ship of Noah. Whoever boarded the ship of Noah was saved and whoever refused to enter the ship of Noah was drowned.
The hadith of Safïnah in its different versions emphasises the same fact and can be found in different Sunni books. For example, it can be found in Mustadrak by Hakim Nishaburi, vol. 3, pp. 149 & 151, Arba‘in Hadith by Nabahani, al-Sawa‘iq al-Muhriqah by Ibn Hajar amongst other sources.
Thus, according to these sets of traditions the appeal to the guidance of the household of the Prophet is of the utmost necessity.
Note: The tradition of thaqalayn is mentioned in both Sunni and Shi‘a sources so it is a matter of agreement among all Muslims. However, there is a version of the hadith in which the Prophet is quoted as saying ‘my Sunnah’ instead of ‘my household’. This version can only be found in some Sunni sources. Provided that this version too can be authenticated, there is no difficulty in understanding what this tradition means. The Prophet in many traditions narrated by all Muslims has said: “I am leaving two precious things and those are the glorious Qur’an and my household.” In a few traditions narrated only by a particular group of Muslims he has said: “the glorious Qur’an and my Sunnah”. Obviously the result would be that as one side of the comparison is the same, i.e. the Qur’an, the other side too must be identical. Therefore, ‘my Sunnah’ and ‘my household’ also must be identical; otherwise one has to say that there is no harmony in what the Prophet said. Thus, the very act of resorting to the teachings and advice of the household of the Prophet is the very act of resorting to the Sunnah of the Prophet. Thus, the only way to reach the Sunnah of the Prophet and to understand exactly what his Sunnah was, is to refer to these people who have had the closest relationship with him and who knew better than anyone else what he said or did or approved.
1 Sunni Muslims hold that whoever met the Prophet while believing in him is considered as a companion of the Prophet and can be relied on in acquiring knowledge about Islam. Accordingly, members of the household of the Prophet such as Imam Ali and Fatimah who have always been with the Prophet and had the closest relation to the Prophet can unquestionably be relied on.
2 Al-Tawassul wa al-Wasilah, p. 52, first edition.
Discovering Shi’i Islam Mohammad Ali Shomali 9th Edition